An extraordinary book about an extraordinary animal s intermingling with humans. It is full of fascinating stories, astute observations, & amazing facts. The sections dealing with modern zoos & circuses are especially relevant, even urgent, today. Author Eric Scigliano has firsthand experience with elephants, & he views all possible information about elephants with reason & clarity. An unsurpassed history of the relationship between elephants & people. Fascinating photos & illustrations.
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Eric Scigliano, who has written for Outside, the New York Times, and many other publications, first became fascinated with elephants as a child in Vietnam. He lives in Seattle.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Human Nature and Elephant Nature
The people of India assert that the tongue of the elephant is upside down, and if it were not for that, it would have spoken.
— Muhammad Ibn Musa Kamal ad-Din ad-Damiri, Hayat al-Hayawan (ca. 1371)
By his intelligence, he makes as near an approach to man, as matter can approach spirit.
— Advertisement for “The Elephant,” 1797
Every creature, from a louse to a lyrebird, is a marvel of nature. But some marvels are just more marvelous than others — and none more so than an elephant. Look at one, a full-grown tusker, and see the image of the Other: huge and looming, weighing up to sixty times as much as a large man, by far the largest creature walking the earth today — “an animated mountain,” as the promoter Edward Cross boasted in 1820, when he offered Londoners their first exotic menagerie show. Its legs are pillars, its inch-thick skin a fissured topography, its dark eyes unnervingly tiny and remote. Its front teeth are gleaming tusks growing nearly as long as goalposts — the mightiest of fangs, fearsome lances in battle and powerful chisels and levers in work, borne by a creature that eats only plants. Weirdest of all its wonders, the elephant defies the laws of quadrupedalism and bilateral symmetry. Its nose and upper lip have fused to form a fifth limb, a trunk (or hasta, “hand,” in Sanskrit), the original multipurpose tool: a crane, forceps, whip, vise, noose, snorkel, shower, vacuum, jet blower, trumpet, bludgeon, and probe — a supple, writhing tentacle, moved by some sixty thousand muscles, which seems a thing of the sea, a precise but mighty instrument that can lift a log or a grain of rice and snap a man’s back — as John Van Couvering of the American Museum of Natural History puts it, “the ultimate in giant mammal design.” Indeed, the elephant stands for the entire world in a Buddhist parable that has spread worldwide. The Buddha’s disciples ask him to sort out the scholars’ endless debates over whether the universe is infinite and eternal or finite and created, and whether the soul perishes with the body. He replies that a rajah once gathered the town’s blind men and had each touch a different part of an elephant and say what he found. “A pot,” said the man who touched the dome of the elephant’s head. “A sail,” said another who touched its ear (or a fan, in one retelling). Others mistook the trunk for a snake, a tusk for a plow (or sword), the back for a mortar, the belly for a sack (or wall), the leg for a tree, the tail for a rope, and the tail tuft for a paintbrush. They began quarreling. Just so, the Buddha explains, are the preachers and scholars who, knowing one side of a question, claim to know the truth of it.
If a camel is a creature designed by a committee, what army of artists and engineers could have conceived all the elephant’s parts? Small wonder that when science-fiction pulp illustrators weary of bug-eyed insectoid monsters, they draw wrinkled, tentacled space elephants. Or that the fourteenth-century scholar ad-Damiri, in his treatise on the 931 creatures named in the Koran, noted that “if a woman dreams of an elephant, it is not a good thing, in whatever state she dreams of it.” Or that John Merrick, the “Elephant Man” of late-nineteenth-century London and twentieth-century Broadway and Hollywood, should be called thus to evoke his extreme deformity and lure the gawking crowds. Merrick himself, in a brief promotional “autobiography,” purportedly wrote, “The deformity which I am now exhibiting was caused by my [pregnant] mother being frightened by an elephant.” This mumbo-jumbo was surely concocted by one of Merrick’s exploiters, but “Elephant Man” is apt nonetheless. Like the actual animals, he was a gentle soul and a sensitive intelligence in an outlandish body. And he was dragged about and displayed, a virtual prisoner, in tawdry sideshows.
Consider this monster again and all it shares with us. Elephants live sixty to eighty years, the same span as humans, if they are not killed by humans first and don’t wreck their health through bad habits; they also enjoy alcohol, and nineteenth-century captives were often given ale or whiskey to calm or reward them, and even as daily rations. The ploy sometimes backfired: some elephants were gushy, maudlin drunks and some turned mean — again, just like us. It’s recorded that Jumbo, the most celebrated elephant of all time, would share a large bottle of stout each night with his keeper, Matthew Scott, who pitched his cot by Jumbo’s pen. When Scott forgot himself and drank the whole bottle, Jumbo shook him awake and demanded his nightcap. Three of P. T. Barnum’s elephants once took a chill after some winteer labors and were given three bottles of whiskey each. The next day, now recovered, they put on the shivers to get more medicine.
A taste for intoxicanttttts suggests intelligence, and anatomy affirms what mahouts and trainers have long attested: elephants are very smart animals. Their brains are by far the largest among land animals — about twice the size of humans’, though much smaller as a share of body weight. Brain size alone is not a strict predictor of intelligence, but elephants’ brains are richly folded and convoluted, indicating sophisticated development, with expansive cerebral lobes, the seats of memory (at least in humans).More telling is the degree to which their brains grow after birth, an indicator of learning ability. Most mammals already have about 90 percent of their ultimate brain mass at birth. Humans have just 26 percent, and chimpanzees about 50 percent. Elephants have 35 percent.
From Aristotle’s day to the present, innumerable authorities have ascribed almost human “sagacity” and almost demonic ingenuity to elephants. When Seattle’s zoo elephants were kept in a dank old barn, one named Bamboo would sneak in pebbles each night, then methodically toss them through the glass windows that stood outside her bars. Keepers still puzzle over her motive: To get fresh air? To pass the time? (Elephants are famously restless at night, and sleep just two or three hours.) Or out of sheer mischief? A keeper at the Great Plains Zoo in Dubbo, Australia, once told me of the pleasure, or at least distraction, her elephants seem to find in turning their home into a shooting gallery: “Every morning we have to wash the feces off the whole elephant barn, starting with the ceiling and working down the walls. They toss it at the possums that crawl on the rafters at night.” A San Antonio keeper says his charges sling mud “whenever the gibbons next door make too much noise.” Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Williams, the legendary “Elephant Bill” who led elephant-borne refugees out of wartime Burma, spotted timber elephants plugging the wooden bells around their necks with mud, then sneaking silently into their masters’ gardens to steal bananas. Another domestic elephant, chained in the path of a flood, piled up broken saplings to make a dry perch. A wild South African elephant was observed digging a drinking hole, then plugging it with a large ball of chewed-up bark, concealing it with sand, and returning later to drink again. This suggests several behaviors once considered uniquely human: invention, foresight, deception, and making and using tools; elephants have also fabricated fly swatters, back scratchers, water sops, and poultices.
Even when they sleep, elephants resemble us. They snore, take siestas in the midday heat, and use hummocks and bushes as pillows. Most of all, they resemble (perhaps even surpass) us in the depth and durability of their familial attachments and affective communications. Female elephants remain for life in the ultimate matriarchies. Aunts and older sisters help care for the young, an important factor in the survival of a species with a long gestation (twenty-two months) and longer childhood. Elephants are among the few mammals, together with primates and sirenians, whose breasts hang between their forelimbs, allowing caressing while infants nurse and strengthening maternal bonds.
Like the love of humans and chimpanzees, elephants’ affections endure after loved ones die. “Elephants’ graveyards” may be fables, but elephants perform something like burial services: watching over and evidently mourning their dead, and even returning to the sites of death, fondling bones and tusks — and shattering them, as though to release their spirits.
They remember more than their dead; that old adage about elephants never forgetting bears some truth. Handler Jeff Pettigrew recalls returning to Ringling Brothers after five years away and being instantly recognized by the elephants he’d worked with. And, he adds, when the show played Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the first time in forty-five years, the three old girls who’d been along the last time “knew exactly the route” from the train station to the arena.
At the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, a new arrival named Jenny met a lonely older cow, Shirley, whom she’d met briefly twenty years before. “Jenny became very agitated upon perceiving Shirley, and started calling,” recounts sanctuary operator Carol Buckley. “After ten minutes there was an unbelievable exchange of vocalizations — the volume was so intense it was deafening. You could see the moment Shirley remembered Jenny. They climbed all over each other through the gate. When we let them through, we expected a huge dramatic scene. Not at all. They just melted into each other. Now, when Jenny naps, Shirley straddles her,” sheltering her like a mother.
The singular nature of elephants has struck untold generations of observers dumb, or at least credulous, and magnified qualities that were already remarkable enough. Even before Barnum and other circus promoters, the original spinmasters, began inflating the measurements of their pachyderm stars, many who knew the animals firsthand saw them as even bigger — much bigger — than they really were. The colonial elephant catcher G. P. Sanderson noted that Madras elephants were variously accounted to be “seventeen to twenty feet high”; one mahout insisted his approached eighteen feet. Sanderson measured that giant and “it did not exceed ten feet.” The tallest Asian elephants scarcely top eleven feet, and the tallest Africans twelve, perhaps thirteen. But stand beneath the stuffed thirteen- foot, seven-ton tusker in the lobby of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and it’s easy to see how imaginations ran wild.
Aristotle, Aelian, Bishop Ambrose, the Indian writer Nilakantha: from ancient authorities to nineteenth-century experts, writers on elephants routinely put their life span at one, two, three hundred, even one thousand years. Even the ordinarily reliable Sanderson opined that “the elephant attains at least 150 years” — twice the actual figure. Perhaps these authorities presumed that elephants needed so many years to acquire the wisdom they so evidently embodied. Wisdom and its companion, gentleness, are the elephant qualities most revered — or exaggerated — by ancients and moderns alike. Pliny saluted elephants for possessing “virtues rare even in man: honesty, wisdom, justice, also respect for the stars and reverence for sun and moon,” and cited reports that “in the forests of Mauretania, when the new moon is shining, herds of elephants go down to a river named Amilo and there perform a ritual of purification, sprinkling themselves with water.” Other Romans described elephants, which delight in bathing and water play, praying to the gods, purifying themselves in the sea, and raising their trunks to salute the rising sun. Even today some Indian temples handily exploit the animals’ natural “prayer” gestures: at the Thepakkadu elephant camp, a young elephant performs a daily sunset puja, repeatedly circling a small shrine, then kneeling and saluting with its trunk.
The ancients saw elephants as not only reverent but romantic. Pliny, Aelian, and Plutarch all write of an elephant who “fell in love” with an Alexandrian flower girl. Pliny mentions another who fell for a young soldier. The ancients believed that elephants relished sweet scents and, by one account, preferred flowers even to food. In return, the giants afforded their own aromatherapy; their sweet breath was believed to be a “sovereign remedy for headache.” Indeed, despite their reputation for flatulence, I’ve never detected a hint of halitosis in many close approaches.
Elephant flatulence is nothing next to elephant diarrhea, a desired sequel to constipation (which can otherwise be fatal). In 1998, according to the journal Elephant, a zookeeper in Paderborn, Germany, fed his constipated elephant Stefan twenty doses of animal laxative and a bushel of berries, figs, and prunes. He was trying to administer an olive oil enema when Stefan’s dam broke. The torrent knocked over the keeper, who struck his head, passed out, and was suffocated under the dung. It was a death worthy of one of Peter deVries’s most absurdly unlucky heroes — and at the same time a monumental professional martyrdom.
And what should this selfless keeper’s monument be made of? In 1999, elephant dung became the culture war’s latest rallying cry, succeeding blood and urine as the most sensational and controversial art medium. That year the British-Nigerian painter Chris Ofili exhibited his Holy Virgin Mary, decorated with dried elephant dung, in the “Sensations” show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took the bait and tried to jerk the museum’s city funding, declaring that “civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement, not on the walls of museums.” In the uproar over The Holy Virgin Mary, much cruder and crueler pieces in “Sensations” were overlooked, as was the longtime use of dung, especially elephant dung, in West African art and worship. Indeed, it could be seen as expressing the same great mystery as the Virgin herself: of spirit contained in corporeality, of supreme power — the elephant in African tradition — combined with fertility, fuel for fire, and fertilizer for crops.
In 1612 the greatest metaphysical poet, John Donne, pondered that mystery in a long verse meditation, “On the Progress of the Soul.” It includes the most eloquent evocation of elephantine gentleness and dignity:
Natures great master-peece, an Elephant, The onely harmlesse great thing; the giant Of beasts; who thought, no more had gone, to make one wise But to be just, and thankfull, loth to offend, (Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend) Himselfe he up-props, on himself relies, And foe to none, suspects no enemies Still sleeping stood; vex’d not his fantasie Blacke dreames; like unbent bow, carelessly His sinewy Proboscis did remisly lie. . . .
Reading such exaltations, one might think God created elephants in his own image and man just got in the way. Indeed, some elephant handlers seem to think that; at the least, they feel more comfortable around their giant charges than with other humans. But they harbor no delusions about elephant physiology and behavior, whereas Donne’s knowledge of both was spotty. Contrary to widespread belief in his time, elephants can bend their knees, and would be in an awful fix if they couldn’t. And far from being “harmless” and suspecting “no enemies,” elephants can remember a wrong and nurse a grudge for years; they can kill suddenly out of long-brewed resentment or pique, or for reasons mysterious even to those who know them. Or some elephants can do so; most are loyal and — damn the anthropocentrism — loving, or at least submissive, passing softly through their long lives. Their temperaments and degrees of dangerousness vary as widely as humans’. Donne’s fellow Englishmen would learn that, sometimes at the price of their lives, once they made...
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